A toast to student grub: A greater variety for the modern undergraduate
Once, freshers lived on baked beans, cereal and Silk Cut. But Casilda Grigg finds that things have moved on since her own university days in the Eighties
Friday 05 October 2012
A modern student thrown into a Tardis and spirited to Edinburgh University in the mid-Eighties would be appalled not just at our fondness for ponchos, Fleetwood Mac and ethnic bags with sequined elephants, but at our food habits. Yet at the time we loved it all.
Back in the days when Jamie Oliver was a schoolboy and Crocodile Dundee was wowing cinema audiences, student meals were built around toast, mince, bacon and breakfast cereals. Potatoes were served baked (a fool-proof method) or mashed (nobody knew how to get rid of the lumps). Beans were eaten cold out of the tin and fish was only in finger form or wrapped in newspaper. Cheap Chinese was all the rage and nobody drank coffee on the hoof.
We entertained constantly but we weren't gourmets. Our store cupboards were stuffed with tins and many of our creations were beige in colour. With no Google to resort to, or mobiles to connect us to home, we phoned our mothers for recipes from the payphone in the hall and reached for the Fitou and the Silk Cut when it all went horribly wrong.
And yet our meals remain prized and unforgotten. For Laura Pulay (Edinburgh 1986-1989) the height of culinary self-indulgence was two lamb chops with redcurrant jelly in front of Neighbours, and for her friend Polly Whately it was tinned macaroni cheese with ketchup on peas.
The changes of the past 25 years have been dramatic. Where once it was Brie and Roquefort that made our pulses race, students now experiment with all manner of foreign exotica: sweet potatoes, ginger, lemongrass, couscous and chilli. The more ambitious among them make Mexican tacos and Moroccan tagines – dishes none of us had even heard of when we were young.
Yet some of our food habits were oddly prescient. Offal, later championed by London chef Fergus Henderson, was very hot in Edinburgh in the late-80s. Many a student meal was produced with kidneys or calf's liver and a small charred saucepan. We improvised and were experimental. I remember delicious renditions of haggis with whisky and butter. We supported seasonality and provenance, if only by accident. With no Indian mangoes or Peruvian asparagus to tempt us, we ate an awful lot of home-grown apples, potatoes, onions and carrots.
Now, of course, it's a different story. More choice, more foreign ingredients, a greater variety of fresh food, an even mix of cooking talent among the sexes. Certain dishes remain in vogue – spaghetti Bolognese, carbonara, shepherd's pie, chocolate brownies – but many of today's student cooks put together elaborate curries and make their own pesto. Some, such as University of London students Angharad Toms and Andrew McKenzie, even grow their own herbs. And many are vegetarian.
Most startling of all, according to Becky Arkwright, who is studying medicine at Edinburgh, they're quite health-conscious. Instead of giving their lungs and liver the standard student pasting, many undergraduates actively load up on fruit and veg in order to hit their five-a-day targets.
The mod cons appear to have improved, if only for a princely few. Rumour has it that Edinburgh students have dishwashers in their New Town digs, along with blenders and supersize fridges. But these, says Edinburgh politics student Ben Cumming, are as much a curse as a blessing. "Dishes are even more likely to pile up, as no one wants to unload the dishwasher."
Touchingly, many aspects of student life remain unchanged. Breakfast in a greasy spoon is still considered the best hangover cure; Hobnobs – the cantuccini of the '80s – are still going strong; and nothing is ever safe in the student frigidaire. Novelist and Oxford graduate Anthony Gardner recalls making pancake mix on the eve of a Shrove Tuesday party, only to discover the next morning that his housemates had come home with the midnight munchies. "They found it in the fridge and just drank it," he said.
When I arrived at Edinburgh in 1986, a 19-year-old fresh off the London train, Rosanna Kelly welcomed me, found me a room in a flat above a rackety pub in Cowgate and invited me to arty dinner parties in her beautiful flat on Dundas Street. She was a third-year Art History and Russian student known for her sparkle and flair in the kitchen.
It was at Rosanna's Edinburgh kitchen table in 1985 that the idea for a student cookbook was born, after a conversation with Scottish law student Gail Hallyburton in which she and Rosanna lamented the lack of cookbooks aimed at students. With the help of Bobby Lloyd, who was studying art at the Ruskin in Oxford, they wrote to hundreds of students in the UK and abroad asking for a favourite recipe (that might be illustrated) to go in a student cookbook. Sadly, everyday life quickly took over but years later, chancing on a first draft in a box in her attic, Rosanna was struck by the charm of the illustrations and – with the exception of the cockroach pie from Russia – the engaging quality of the recipes. The result, after vigorous editing and an injection of new talent, is a nod to our Edinburgh days in the mid-to-late Eighties and a compilation of dishes cooked by modern-day students everywhere from Manchester to the Mississippi, called Goodbye Cockroach Pie.
Students will always be students – short of funds, ravenous, adept at improvisation. And this is where Goodbye Cockroach Pie comes in. Aimed at young people leaving home for the first time, it is a book to dip into for ideas, inspiration and merriment. Simplicity and speed are the key. Scales are not essential and other than the basics – a fridge, an oven and ingredients – most of the dishes require no more than a sharp knife, a saucepan, a degree of sobriety and a set of friends.
What emerges from talking to undergraduates is that today's student cooking is a distinct improvement on the Eighties. It's tastier, prettier to look at, more cosmopolitan and often better for us. We have gone from malt vinegar and Bulgarian plonk to balsamic and very acceptable Chilean Merlot. We have discovered olive oil, sea salt, fresh herbs, soy sauce. Our taste buds have changed beyond recognition.
How many of us, nostalgic though we might be for the days of Mike Tyson, Dynasty shoulder pads and the two-fingered Kit Kat, would really climb aboard that Tardis?
Goodbye Cockroach Pie, edited by Rosanna Kelly and Casilda Grigg (Inky Paws Press, £9.99)
Everybody adores banana bread and it's particularly delicious first thing in the morning with a strong cup of coffee. You'll need a medium-sized loaf tin, some baking parchment, a wooden spoon, a large bowl and a sieve.
Ingredients (for 1 loaf)
100g softened butter
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
6 tablespoons of plain flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
4 ripe bananas
A handful of chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons of milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Grease the loaf tin with some butter and line with baking parchment. In a large bowl mix together the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon. Add the egg, sift in the flour and baking powder and stir in. Peel the bananas and mash before adding to the mix. Next add the milk, nuts and the lemon zest and mix everything together. Pour into the loaf tin, bake for an hour.
Snazzy Beans on Toast
This is a cheap and stylish snack that's easy to make and a lovely pea-green colour. It doesn't keep so is best made on the day and kept in the fridge until needed, covered in a light film of olive oil. It goes down a storm with broad-bean-haters – just don't reveal the ingredients. Make sure you season this with plenty of salt and add more lemon for extra zing. You'll need a medium-sized saucepan and a liquidiser or masher.
Ingredients (to serve 2)
A heaped cereal bowl of frozen broad beans (find them near the frozen peas)
1 clove of garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
Olive oil (ideally Greek extra-virgin)
4 slices of sourdough (or any rustic white bread)
About 6 slices of Parmesan or Manchego (a Spanish sheep's milk cheese from the La Mancha region)
Cook the broad beans in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain. Refresh under cold water. Peel and finely chop the garlic. In a blender, liquidise the beans with the garlic, lemon juice and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. If you don't have a blender, mash the beans and garlic together to make a paste, then put in a bowl and mix in the lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toast the bread. Spoon the beans over each slice, top with slices of Parmesan or Manchego and drizzle with olive oil. Eat immediately.
Pea and Mint Soup
A sublime pea soup that has the virtue of being cheap yet chic. Serve with a spoonful of crème fraîche and chopped mint on top.
Ingredients (to serve 6)
A bunch of spring onions
2 sticks of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 large knobs of butter
3 mugs of water (or vegetable stock)
2 cereal bowls of frozen peas
6 tablespoons of milk
1 vegetable stock cube
4 tablespoons of crème fraîche (1 spoonful for each person's bowl)
Wash the spring onions, line them up in a row and chop off the roots and any straggly ends. Remove any papery outer leaves. Slice the white stems into small circles. Wash and chop the celery. Peel and chop the garlic finely. Melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the vegetables until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the water and bring to the boil. Add the peas, bring back to the boil and cook until tender (about 3 minutes).
Remove from heat and allow to cool. Stir in the milk and crumble in the vegetable stock cube before whizzing in a blender. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Pour the soup into separate bowls. Add the crème fraîche and tear a few mint leaves over each bowl.
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